Carmakers really, really don't like to take chances. Not since the earliest days of the industry have they tried to develop a new body and chassis and a new energy storage and power delivery system, all at the same time and all for the same car. Yet that's exactly what General Motors is doing with its upcoming Chevrolet Volt extended-range electric car. And the stakes couldn't be higher.
Caught off guard a decade ago as rival Toyota launched and then refined its hybrid-electric-drive cars, GM has struggled to catch up. Within the last year, Toyota has equaled GM's global production-- and announced the manufacture of its millionth Prius hybrid. But with the Volt and various other hybrid vehicles of its own, GM has mapped out a bold strategy that will pit it squarely against Toyota. The arena? Technology.
The executive at the center of this battle is an African-American engineer in her 40s--one of very few black women in the auto industry's upper ranks--who didn't even own a car when she took her first job at GM 28 years ago. Denise Gray, unofficially GM's ”battery czar,” is the company's director of energy-storage devices. Her job is nothing less than overseeing GM's efforts to develop a new generation of batteries that will give it an edge in electric vehicles.
At the top of her to-do list is testing and approving the battery pack for the much-touted Volt, which GM is working feverishly to release in November 2010. The clock began ticking when the first battery pack was delivered last year on 31 October and won't stop until the first Volt rolls into a dealer's showroom. Until then, Denise Gray will be the executive to watch in the U.S. automotive industry.
It's hard to overstate how much GM has riding on the Volt. Decades of downsizing and dwindling North American sales have the company locked in a neck-and-neck race with surging Toyota for the title of the world's largest car company, which GM held for 70 years. With the radical Volt, GM hopes to leapfrog its rival's decade of experience in hybrid electric vehicles.
Technically, the two firms' approaches to electric drives could scarcely be more different. Toyota has built more than 1 million ”power-split” hybrids, which use a battery with a storage capacity of 1 to 2 kilowatt-hours to assist the gasoline engine and store energy regenerated while braking. These cars travel only 1 or 2 kilometers on pure electric power.
By contrast, the Volt is an ”extended-range electric vehicle,” which will take advantage of the new large-format lithium-ion batteries just now entering the market. Its 16-kWh battery pack will give the car a pure-electric range of up to 65 km, or 40 miles, with a small gasoline engine providing another 480 km, or about 300 miles, on a single tank of fuel. That gas engine, however, won't drive the wheels directly; it will power only a generator that recharges the batteries, which drive the electric motor that spins the wheels. The Volt will also have a plug that will let its batteries be recharged from any outlet; that's why this kind of vehicle is also called a plug-in hybrid.
With sales of big, gas-thirsty vehicles in free fall in the United States, GM has called the Volt its most important new car program. And success or failure will hinge on those lithium-ion battery packs; if they don't prove robust enough to last 10 years and 240 000 km (about 150 000 miles), the car will flop.
All Gray has to do is make sure GM picks the right lithium-ion system and then ensure that those battery packs are exhaustively tested. She'll have to navigate government safety-certification requirements in multiple countries and have the packs manufactured in large quantities and to very high quality standards. She's got two years to get it done.
Car talk surrounded Gray during her childhood in Detroit in the 1960s and 1970s. ”My entire family worked in the industry,” she says. ”My aunt assembled V6 engines at GM's Livonia engine plant; my other aunt and my uncles assembled axles at GM Gear & Axle. Working for auto companies was just a part of our life.” Her mother worked at GM too, making stabilizer bars and other parts in a General Motors forge plant--some of the hottest and most grueling work in the industry. Still, even though cars were in her blood, Gray didn't own one when she first started working at GM in 1980; she rode the city bus to her position in Warren, Mich., at the GM Technical Center.
Today, when time is tight, she flies on a GM corporate jet. And back on earth, she gets a brand-new company car every few months. These days, she's driving a sporty Cadillac SRX crossover, after recently trading in a low-slung, V8â''powered Corvette. Her smile flickers when she says, quietly but firmly, ”I like to merge with pride .”
Her mother, Vernice, had moved to Detroit from Arkansas in the 1950s, seeking a job in the booming hub of the U.S. auto industry. Denise's father left when she was five; after that Vernice worked full-time to support her children.